Stephen Watts, Ancient Sunlight

Stephen Watts, Ancient Sunlight, (Enitharmon, 2014), 128pp, £9.99. ISBN 9781907587290

Reviewed by Phoebe Walker [Originally published in LP4, November 2014]

The figure of the flâneur is an enduring one in literature. One poetry journal recently spoke of wanting to “revive the art of flânerie”, but I think that art, far from reaching its peak with Baudelaire and Benjamin, has always been alive and kicking, even if it masquerades under other names. Judges of poetry competitions frequently comment on the preponderance of the theme of ‘writing the city’, and poetry of the cityscape proliferates in a great deal of contemporary written and spoken word. It seems there are almost as many urban thought foxes as there are their real-life, scavenging counterparts.

Stephen Watts’ most recent collection is evidence of a poet well-pickled in the milieu of the street, without being so unsubtle as to actually spell out his flaneurial practice (which is in keeping with Benjamin’s understanding of the flâneur as both detective and detached observer). An eminent translator of poetry, Watts’ work seems to find its ease in its own broad scope, from the eating houses of Soho to ‘the mushroom fields of Bohemia’, the phantoms of Brick Lane to the blue floors of Lithuanian forests. I like the generosity of Watts’ philosophy of the city; from the above sentence you might expect the Brick Lane poem to be a sooty dirge contrasted with a paean to more sylvan metropolises, but Watts has no truck with such simplistic (not to mention unjust) comparisons. His poems seek to capture the essence of place, with a full understanding of how elusive and ephemeral a thing that is; reading this collection there is an overwhelming sense of images snatched, briefly, from the very streets they describe – the ‘cold starters and Budweiser in Na Tetínĕ’, the ‘burning cardboard on palettes of wood’, the ‘sweet potatoes, the flat-fish and neuroses’ – that are then left to melt back into the fragile structure of the poem.

In these poems, images linger but they sidle to the edge of the reader’s vision – I imagine them as the backdrops and almost out-of-shots of a thousand photographs, seen but not quite registered at the time. It’s a mesmeric effect, although one that takes a little time to get used to; certainly the poems in the first section of the book have such an intense and solipsistic focus that the reader can feel like an unwanted observer. But the poems open out, and if by doing this they don’t seek to illuminate, they do invite. Although some poems reference, heavily at points, their locale (and a joke about ‘how Hvar we’ve come’ is repeated once more than it should be), others give almost no indication, beyond their titles, of where we are.

When you live on the twenty-first floor of a tower
and way past midnight you hear a fracture
of wings and in the morning there’s
a collar-dove on your balcony

                is that a dream?

With apologies to ornithologists, reading this I could be in any number of cities in the world. And the cascade of sentences, taking the reader from ‘that kestrel/ pinioned on its wing-bone’, ‘Arctic geese flying beneath your feet’, ‘darting swifts mewing in the fine drizzle’, make such prosaic knowledge unimportant, as the poem finally acknowledges (perhaps a touch too bluntly) ‘the stupidity of ever drawing boundaries’. The fact that this poem is titled ‘Birds of East London’, and that birds in this collection are recurring symbols of freedom and release, makes me appreciate the light-headed possibilities of a city whose literary appearances are so often geared to the heavy, the earth-bound, and the grime-streaked.

Watts’ language is rich and (mostly) carefully employed. There’s always a temptation to over-elaborate in the description of the urban scene – that cacophony of the senses almost demands an over-effusive rendering – but Watts manages to luxuriate in it without quite waxing purple. A greedy reader, I most relished his warm descriptions of food, and of writing:

[…] this poem
on dough-fresh chapatti in milli-script
until it’s done
And up above, the round filled moon is
clay-baked bread,

‘My Mother, Her Tongue’ is lush with the descriptions of ‘you’,

wrapping pancakes in lemon, tired limbs
in warm sheets, folding pastry on apple
roasting meats

while ‘To End With…’ is a litany of the edible city:

Beautiful secret alleyway off Broslehan Street – mallow, lime
leaves, garlic mustard, fat hen

Watts’ streets, and his gardens, pubs, graveyards and mountains, are thick with feeling, but I like the rarer, sparer phrases: ‘I’ve never driven a car but no-one ever’s given me/ praise for that’, or ‘I think back on my grandmother/ […]/ Held just where history exploded her’. For the most part these are long poems, suited to the meanderings of their theme, but with enough structural variety to hold attention (although a very few, rigidly rhymed pieces disappoint).

‘Many things are possible in the city’, the poet reminds us. Out of context this line, humming with a sense both of invitation and warning, could be the opening line of a dystopian fiction, although the shades of this collection ultimately favour the brighter reading. More than just a sequence of glittering vignettes, Watts’ work enacts the tension between the simultaneous generosity and impassivity of the city in both its physical and psychic manifestations.

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